It takes a nation of maestros . . .

How oppression gave rise to China's obsession with playing the piano

The BBC's ongoing Focus on China season featured the first of four essays by Patrick Wright on our historical attitude to the Orient (English Takeaway, Monday 16 June, 11pm, Radio 3). His casual, subtle voice asked us to consider the Great Exhibition of 1851, where the public gathered to look at a "lady of quality of Canton, singing", and marvel at her feet - scarcely two and a half inches long and bent into the shape of a lotus flower. Victorian women huffed at the sight, although as they themselves were constricted by 15 pairs of knickers I don't quite know where they thought they were coming from.

The previous night, Petroc Trelawny had stunned listeners with The Red Piano Factory, his troubled documentary about a piano factory in Guangzhou (Sunday 15 June, 9.40pm). Currently, as many as 80 million children play the piano in China and the factory churns out one keyboard a minute. China is evidently in the grip of some kind of fever. Rachmaninov seeps from loudspeakers and you can scarcely make it ten yards down the street before being forced to buy an illegal Goldberg Variations box set.

If you'd ever suspected Brahms could be used as a deadly weapon, then here was the proof. Wherever Trelawny turned, kiddies of all ages were beating the shit out of his opus 116, stopping once every two hours for porridge and tea.

The mild Trelawny (usually found on television as an architectural historian gazing at stone pineapples through a Decline and Fall fringe) was at a loss to work out what was going on - and so was everyone else. "Do you enjoy playing the piano?" Petroc asked a toddler who had just murdered Beethoven. "Another great dream is to fly to space," came the reply. "Maybe they will be less aggressive when they grow up," suggested someone's dad. "This is good, you know? In terms of peace."

Much was naturally made of the banning of western classical music during the Cultural Revolution and the pressure on lone Chinese children to be stars, but there's got to be more to it than that. The whole scene is way weird. Daily, great warehouses are being converted into practice spaces where smiling grannies sit patiently with steamed buns waiting for metronomes to halt momentarily.

Desperate for answers, Trelawny spoke to the Chinese maestro Fou Ts'ong, whose diagnosis was startlingly wretched. We dare not think, he said, we dare not remember. We stomp and forge, we struggle impotently to service the spiritual. He sounded like someone certain there was nobody and nothing for miles around.

Finally, a now pale Trelawny sought out Liu Shikun, the world-renowned performer of Liszt before Mao denounced the piano as "a coffin in which the hammers rattle around like the bones of the bourgeoisie", and the pianist was sent to a labour camp. Liu's monologue was unforgettable. It dropped from my speakers like a desolate apple core.

"I need you to translate this accurately and precisely. I was in solitary confinement for five years. I did not see a piano. I did not think of it. All I could think of is if I could survive. One time I was on my feet for 53 days and nights. I'll tell you a secret: now I do not like playing the piano very much."

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Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically